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Incoming ninth graders Miles Fox, left, and Josh Chase, right, both 14, work out a chess move together during a class called “Chess Challenge” during the Summer Bridge program at West Seattle High School. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Before this summer, Josh Chase wasn’t sure he was prepared for high school. He wanted to do better than he had in middle school when he went through a rough time personally, but was worried he was too far behind.

So when Chase, 14, received a letter inviting him to attend a 5-½-week summer program to help him prepare for high school, he signed up.

And now, as school starts this week, he’s feeling a lot better about his chances of doing well.

“We reviewed a lot of stuff that I forgot,” he said.

Chase was one of about 100 students – mostly incoming freshmen at Franklin, Chief Sealth and West Seattle high schools – to attend Seattle’s newest summer-bridge program, where they brushed up on academics, made connections with teachers and were introduced to the activities high school can offer.

Many Seattle high schools have such programs in one form or another. But this one, sponsored by the city of Seattle and run by the YMCA in the three high schools, is among the most intensive, with the longer program followed by a week-long program open to all incoming freshmen.

Nationwide, summer-bridge programs are emerging as a popular strategy to help prevent dropouts. Studies suggest such transition programs have also led to improved pass rates for ninth-graders, fewer discipline problems and increased self-esteem.

A district in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, for example, cut its freshman truancy rate in half by implementing programs, including its summer-bridge program.  And at Stephenson High School in DeKalb County, Georgia, 80 percent of bridge-program participants passed ninth-grade biology, compared to 61 percent for students who didn’t participate. And the program’s influence seemed to continue beyond freshman year; while most summer-bridge participants took three Advanced Placement classes their junior year, other students typically took just one.

Summer-bridge programs began in the early 1990s in isolated areas, importing a model that colleges and universities have used for decades. But as the research began to show how successful the programs could potentially be, the programs gained in popularity, according to Robert Stonehill, Chief Program Officer at Learning Point Associates.

“Summer is being rethought in general,” said Stonehill. “Whether it’s college-based or high school-based, it’s part of a larger picture in which summer is becoming a better utilized block of time to work with kids.”

Freshman year is recognized by researchers and educators alike as critically important. More students fail ninth grade than any other grade, and once students are held back, the likelihood that they’ll drop out increases dramatically.

Most schools know who the at-risk students are and “know that if they don’t provide special attention to these students, ninth grade is where they’re going to be lost,” said Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center based at Clemson University in South Carolina.

The three Seattle schools targeted by the summer-bridge programs serve a large number of students who the city determined are at risk of dropping out, said Kacey Guin, a senior policy analyst in the City of Seattle’s Office of Education.

Middle school teachers and administrators, as well as YMCA staff, identified students last spring who they thought would benefit from the new program, based on a variety of factors such as grades and school attendance. Invitation letters were sent home to their families in the spring.

While it may seem like a hard sell to get teenagers to give up part of summer vacation, many students who attended the program, held at Seattle University, said they’re glad they did.

“My parents made me go, so I went, and it turned out really great,” said Asia Davis, 15, who recently moved to Seattle from North Carolina.

She said she was able to make new friends, get the help she needed in math, and take an enrichment class in cooking, which she loved.

Mary Kay Bisignano-Vadino, background facing camera, leads incoming ninth graders participating in a “street yoga” class during the Summer Bridge program at West Seattle High School. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Four mornings a week, the students took math and language arts classes, with enrichment classes in the afternoons. Besides cooking, the other offerings included robotics, music and martial arts. All students also spent time learning how to research and write a business plan.

On Fridays, they spent time learning about college and did community service. Nearly all of the 100 students who started the program finished, said Anne Powell of the YMCA.

Many of the students who attended the 5-½-week bridge program, including Chase and Davis, also took part in the one-week orientation, open to all incoming freshmen at the three high schools.

Chase’s sister, who is his guardian, urged him to take part in the one at West Seattle High, wanting him to do whatever he could to prepare for high school. He said he also wanted to check out the school building, which he’d never visited before.

In all, about half of the incoming freshmen at West Seattle High attended the weeklong program, spending time with advisers, making friends, and learning more about the school’s clubs and other offerings.

Even for students who only attend that shorter program, the opportunity to learn the lay of the land and meet teachers can make a difference.

“You forget how terrifying it is to be a freshman in high school,” Guin said, calling the program the “foundation of freshman year.”

While the longer program focused heavily on academics, the week-long program simply doesn’t provide the time to work much on academics. It “really focuses on connectedness to school academic rituals,” Blanford said.

For instance, the schools have all crafted a High School 101 class to prepare students for the types of assignments they might encounter. But perhaps the most important part of the week is the chance to begin to get to know teachers and other faculty.

“Research does demonstrate that having a caring adult in your life, feeling that connection is critical and is the sort of thing that helps kids persevere and not drop out,” Guin said. “This week is an opportunity to begin that type of relationship.”

Lisa Coacher, a reading intervention teacher at West Seattle, agreed. “The overarching goal is just building that personal relationship with students before they start school,” she said. “It does help set the tone.”

A version of this article appeared in The Seattle Times on September 8, 2010. Linda Shaw is a reporter for The Seattle Times.

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